Unprotected: A Memoir

Billy Porter’s memoir “Unprotected” is a tome to anyone who has ever felt overlooked, whose gift and defining qualities are so radical and advance of their time that they defy expectation. They are misunderstood. Worse yet, they are considered abominable.

Few people understand this, especially, what it is like to be born a sin. And not in a bastard-child kind of way, but more like a “transgression” you own, and which predated your arrival. You are picked apart without even having your own sense of agency and understanding; you are scorned; you are never enough.

Porter captures this harrowing experience in a bodacious and delectable account, filled with pathos, pizzazz and ineluctable “faggotry”—his words, not mine. His no-holds-barred admonishment of those who underestimated him and who tried to dim his shine comes with all the reads, “henny.” This gurl came to slay!

The Billy Porter that we see today, donning outrageous gender-edifying gowns, and a mantle sporting an Emmy, a Tony, a Grammy, and a list of other acclaim doesn’t immediately privy you to his life of inordinate struggles. Some he describes in the book have been forced upon him, and others have been self-inflicted from an aversion to self-immolation. Whether it be at home, at church, in school, or on the stage, being gay—and with an extra cup of sugar—has made him a target of hate, of violence, of being not-quite, or too much. Vulnerable and unprotected, he found salvage in his undeniable voice and artistry, his one saving grace.

The book starts out with a sweet introduction to his mother Cloerinda Jean Johnson Porter-Ford, who was herself a sort of social outcast. Due to a mishap at birth on the order of medical malpractice, she suffered neurological deficiencies that effectively rendered her physically disabled, although her mental faculties were intact. Like Porter, being different came with its unique set of challenges. She was considered a cripple and stupid. She was denied a regular education, having been grouped with those with significant cognitive impairment. Raised by her aunt Dorothy, she was absconded indoors and made to be what Porter refers to as a Black-erella, a Black Cinderella, who did house chores while her twin sisters hobnobbed. Unlike Porter, however, her religiosity deprived her of some degree of compassion for her young son’s suffering, despite having experienced a similar social exile.

As a young lad with feminine eccentricities and interests in women’s dresses, shoes, and accoutrement, he learned early that there was something so detestable about him that at five years old he was sent weekly to see a doctor tasked to “fix him.” Absent a father figure during this time, this becomes the first in a series of events in which Porter felt that he had no sense of security, where his very essence was considered pathogenic. He was assailed both at home and in the house of God by parishioners and from the pulpit, where he would learn that this thing in him, his gayness, would send him careening toward the deepest crevices of hell. (He ultimately quit the church at 12 years old.) In these accounts, Porter wonderfully characterizes the quagmire queer children must navigate in a society that doesn’t love them and the immense mental burden they wrestle with at very young ages that many straight, righteous, and fair-minded people don’t comprehend.

In one dramatic account he described when a gang of six boys beat him up for suspecting he was gay. He suffered a black eye, a fractured jaw, and fractured ribs in full view of onlookers who didn’t come to his aid. Although the writing is of a past encounter, you can tell that the hurt is still enduring:

“How do you heal from living every day of your life in a society so hateful and dangerous you can’t even walk down the street in peace? How do you heal from something like that?”

This is the backdrop upon which all the subsequent violent attacks and microaggressions that Porter chronicles against his person are to be considered. While the memoir spans the totality of his life, the many ways that he has felt unprotected, even as an adult, all intersect at ground zero. There appears a shared animus against his sexuality, but also specifically against the degree of femininity that he possesses, whether it be in his actions or in his voice, as we later learn in stories about his academic and professional life. In other words, he has been made to feel like he is not man enough. With great honesty, he discusses his childhood sexual abuse, bullying, homophobia and racism that both defined him and that hamstrung his success in life. And throughout it, we see the complicated relationship he has had with his mother. As late as his young adulthood, she was praying the gay away only to evolve into a force of good later, directing her spiritual devoutness to his success at different turns of his career.

Despite the harsh realities that he faced, you learn of his enduring passion in his craft and a steadfast belief in his own talent. In ways, his natural gift of singing was an escape from the hardship he endured, and yet, it was sharpened by the amount of practice he put into it, escaping that reality. He took advantage of every arts program he could find in his hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and the proof is in the pudding. Throughout his life many have described his voice as rarified. He even won Star Search and $100,000 prize in 1992, which would be akin to winning today’s American Idol. He recognized early on that art and education would be his salvation and that through his voice, he was able to lull a room and redirect focus away from his mannerisms. Whereas in society he stood out like a gazelle among a herd of water buffalos, in theater and music, he had found his tribe.

In the absence of the familial support that he needed, he developed strong bonds with his chosen family, especially when he had moved to New York. But in these chapters that take place in the 1980s, Porter creates a heartfelt portrayal of immense loss, as many of his close friends, young men like him with verve and talent and great ambitions, die off during the AIDS epidemic. The lack of response by the U.S. government and from the religious community during this time, contributed to the book’s theme of the void of care and security for men like him.

Although a fair portion of the content is heavy, it is interspersed with ruminations at the time of writing that are italicized throughout each chapter that bring more nowness and sometimes levity. They shed light on his adult insecurities, his struggles with intimacy, and pep talks like the following in a manner of speech that is all his:

“I am a f*cking mess and I have no time to be messy. The shit is swirling around me way too fast. Interviews, photo shoots, benefit galas, The Twilight Zone, hosting duties, GQ Man of the Year: Germany—Daddy’s International now! Emmy wins and magazine covers….Breathe, Boo. Keep breathing. Life is good! You’ve made it this far, bitch, what chu gonna do now, just give up? You ain’t no crazier than anybody else on this planet. You ain’t nothing new. Get over yourself and get on with it. Put your f*cking fifty-year-old-big-boy pants on and pull it together.”

Despite various runs on Broadway in his 20s and 30s, readers will be surprised to learn that he spent 10 years out of a job, couch surfing. It is unclear whether he was blackballed in the industry for a reputation of being “low-key” difficult to work with when he stood up for himself against casting directors who didn’t like his vocal tone, one French composer who tried to tell him, a Black man, how to personify a gospel preacher, or the director and assistant director of another production who asked him to perform a dangerous dance maneuver that injured him. How Porter frames this, and this is a reality for artist of color performing in an ego-driven industry largely created for and by white heterosexual people, especially at that time, being “not right” for a part was often a substitute for not being white. If they would overlook his race, he always felt that he was judged for not being masculine enough, so he was never able to bring himself fully into his work.

This, of course, changed when he landed “Kinky Boots” on Broadway in 2013 and had a two-year run, culminating in a Drama Desk and a Tony award for his performance as the drag queen Lola, the lead character. In this role, he had greater connection with the subject matter, and he could be the best damned Lola there ever was—Lola up until that time had only been played by a straight man in the movie version. Rather than denying his essence that many persecuted him for, he found that he was most successful when he leaned into it more fully. This was the same when he auditioned for the part of Pray Tell, in Ryan Murphy and Steven Canal’s “Pose,” an FX drama series of the ball culture in the 1980s and 1990s. In playing the part safely, Murphy chided Porter, “I need you to give me awwwlll of you! There is nothing you can do that will be too broad, too big, too much, or too flamboyant! Let us have it all!” For this role, he would later win his Emmy, the first openly Black gay man to do so.

Although Porter has felt unprotected his entire life, he was hardly ever alone, buoyed by the occasional lovers and love interests he recounts, his many friends, and those he calls his “angels” who came to his aid in times of hardship. From his strident friend, Phillip Gilmore, who could appreciate the extreme range of his tenorino voice that his voice coach could not, saying, “The world’s not ready for you yet, Billy. But they are getting ready!”; to Suzie Dietz and her husband Lenny Beer, who had been steadfast supporters of his work and helped him financially in various ways; and to his dear mother.

For a book written largely about loss, struggle, and suffering, you will come away not only getting an understanding of the making of Billy Porter, but also learning a lot about the ins and outs of the entertainment business and seeing a blueprint on how to harness your strengths by being true to yourself, as Porter comes to understand his:

“Your service is leaning into your truth, your queerness, your authenticity. Yeah, that thing you been told needed to be fixed. Yeah, the thing everyone told you would be your liability. You are enough, just as you are.”

About this book

  • ISBN:9781419746192
  • Price:$28.00
  • Page Count:288

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